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Date: 12/27/98

Publication: The Nation

Section: Feature

Miracles, Visions And Crystal Balls

Faith, wisdom and Buddhism in Thai society today have taken a long detour from the essentials, says Nithinand Yorsaengrat.

AN eclectic mix of the Lord Buddha's teachings, Hinduism, animism and spiritualism, Buddhism in Thailand has a very distinctive character. And most Thai Buddhists would seem to have more faith in spirits, miracles, thewada lae sing saksith (angels and ''sacred'' objects) and in the historical Buddha himself, than they have in the Lord Buddha's teachings.

Indeed, Buddhism as it is practised in the Kingdom today, could be explained on two levels: in terms of the ''Truths'' preached by the Buddha; and in terms of the beliefs practised on a day-to-day basis by Thais who define themselves as Buddhist. And in the lives of the latter, spirits, miracles, amulets and talismans have always played a role.

But surely only the truths preached by the Buddha can serve all the needs of us human beings? Well, yes. And no.

Most of us cannot live without a belief or faith in some supernatural power. As human beings we have limited power. Being only a small part of a huge universe, we realise that we are incapable of controlling everything -- even our thoughts, sometimes. So we allow this ''supernatural power'' a place in our minds; we need its presence to reassure ourselves that we will be protected from danger, from the unknown.

Knowledge of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths (see below) can liberate our minds from fear and suffering. But it takes much time and effort to understood these truths fully.

On the other hand, a faith in spiritualism and supernatural power can supply people with a new hope; the promise of a short-cut to happiness and a brighter future.

For many Thais, Buddhism involves adhering to certain rules of morality, performing certain rites and reading Buddhist texts. These practices, they believe, will ensure them good luck in their lives by guaranteeing them the protection of ''sacred'' beings: the Buddhas (the historical Buddha as well as Buddhas in former eras) and other arahant (Worthy Ones, once human now liberated/enlightened by their attainment of wisdom).

So, in this sense, Buddhism includes a belief in spiritualism, the various Buddhas and arahant fulfilling the role of deities capable of performing miracles.

Indeed, Buddhism which is a religion/philosophy of ''cause'' and ''effect'' does not deny spiritualism, the concept of sacredness or even miracles (the laws of science, in the context we know them today, still cannot explain every phenomenon).

Nonetheless, the Buddha himself pointed out that the essence of his message was that no exterior force -- no miracles, angels or amulets -- can liberate a person from fear and suffering; that personal enlightenment is a task one must accomplish for oneself.

A person who wants to be set free only needs to understand what are referred to as the Four Noble Truths (ariyasacca): suffering/unsatisfactoriness; the cause of suffering; the cessation of suffering; and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

Or put in simpler terms, the Buddha states that all existence is suffering; and suffering is caused by cravings (for pleasure, for some situation to continue, or for some situation to end). These cravings can be extinguished by following eight steps (the Eightfold Path): right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration.

And to be able to take these eight steps, one needs training in higher morality, concentration and higher wisdom.

This deliberately abbreviated explanation of the Buddha's message may sound simple; but it is far from easy to comprehend, much less follow the Eightfold Path. Which is why so many people, in their attempts to alleviate the suffering in their lives, are tempted to take short cuts. And why so many, otherwise level-headed, Thai Buddhists, are attracted to monks around the country who claim to possess supernatural power.

Where there is a need, an enterprising person or group will very often materialise to cater to that need. Hence the ''miracles'' occasionally reported from this or that temple (the latest, on Sept 6, at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, was said to have been witnessed by tens of thousands of devotees).

In terms of dhamma language, miracles can happen inside one's mind when one is assiduously following the Eightfold Path. But if one has already reached that advanced level of inner understanding one has no need to ask for miracles, for signs from some exterior power. (Which is not to say that people cannot be helped to transform their lives if they truly believe that they have witnessed something miraculous.)

In pre-consumer-culture days, a person felt a ''miracle'' had occurred when the Buddha granted whatever favour he/she had asked for. For instance, a pregnant woman might offer candles, incense, flowers and a stem of bananas to the Buddha image and ask for a son; and when she later gave birth to a healthy baby boy she considered this to be a miraculous event. Typically comprising food or home-made items, the offering was symbolic, so its value or size was not particularly relevant.

But the dawning of consumerism in Thailand would seem to have made the supernatural powers greedier and more acquisitive too: now, the greater the favour asked by the supplicant, the bigger the monetary and other gifts ''required'' by this or that spiritual benefactor. And if Wat Dhammakaya is any yardstick, the more financial, technological, management and marketing resources a temple can call upon, the more spectacular the ''miracles'' it can expect too. (After all why settle for a brief glimpse of a levitating Buddha statue when you can offer a 30-minute show with a ''crystal'' temporarily taking the place of the sun!)

The only similarity between past and contemporary scenarios is that a large group of people has complete faith in a few leaders and never questions whether what the latter are doing fits in with the essence of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths.

This new consumer-cult of Buddhism, as typified by the powers-that-be at Wat Dhammakaya, focuses on the miraculous, on the existence of thewada lae sing saksith (which would also appear to include cosmic occurrences). Followers are strongly urged to tham boon (make merit) by making donations to the temple; and told, in so many words, that the more money they contribute, the more merit they will accumulate.

However, the boon offered by Wat Dhammakaya is not the peace of mind needed for a full understanding of the Four Noble Truths. On the contrary, according to literature published by the temple, the boon gained from making a donation will (depending on the amount) ensure one greater wealth, happiness, beauty, social status, etc, in the next life. (One leaflet promises ''beautiful skin'' for Bt5,000 and a ''beautiful house'' for Bt10,000).

The Dhammakaya cult has attracted many celebrities, among them Tanya Suesantisuk, Miss Thailand World (1997). In a recent interview with Khao Sod newspaper, she defended her support for the temple by asking: ''What's wrong with spending lots of money on making merit if one gets a good feeling in return? Why does nobody complain when someone uses the same amount of money to buy a luxury car? It's all the same. One gets a good feeling [from doing that too].''

Tanya is only one of a growing number of Thai Buddhists (middle-class, urban dwellers for the most part) who are trying to ''have their cake and eat it''. The thinking seems to be: if I do ''good deeds'' (follow Buddhist rules of morality; make merit; practise meditation) then I can continue to satisfy my cravings while getting protection from misfortune in this life and receiving my just rewards in the next.

(Not that Buddhism expects the ordinary man in the street to be as assiduous as a monk in his attempts to extinguish all earthly cravings. But by adhering to the much less onerous precepts laid down for Buddhist laity, by following the Middle Path, a layman will endure less suffering in his life.)

MEDITATION (samadhi) is another selling point used by the consumer cult of Buddhism in recent years and a large number of schools teaching various techniques have opened around the Kingdom.

Samma samadhi (right concentration) is the last step on the Eightfold Path but one wonders what exactly motivates some of the Buddhists who enroll for courses at these schools. Do students see meditation as a method of gaining a fuller understanding of the Four Noble Truths? Or are they using it as a route to acquire supernatural/psychic powers? Or as a method to contact ''God'' in order to satisfy their curiosity about the universe and the ''secret of life''?

Meditation schools including the late Buddhadhassa Bhikku's centre at Suan Moke and those run by Khun Mae Siri Krinachai and Mae Chee Sansanee Sathianrasoot teach meditation in the Buddhist way (the goal being to leave one's self).

The meditation techniques taught by many other schools in the Kingdom have a distinctly Hindu slant (Hindus believe that one can, by dint of difficult, esoteric meditation practices, transform oneself into a ''supreme self'' or combine oneself with ''God''.) Those schools include the Transcendental Meditation Centre in Bangkapi, for instance. The practices at the school of the Wat Dhammakaya. are also questionable. The Bangkapi centre assures students that by strictly following TM techniques they will be able to achieve self-levitation (and that the world can be saved from crisis if thousands of people levitate simultaneously) and finally to join together with the God.

The Buddha listed 40 different methods of practising samadhi including the ''staring at the object'' method (pheng gasin). Renamed dhammakaya by Wat Dhammakaya, this technique involves concentrating on an imaginary ''crystal ball'' located two inches above the navel (the location of the kaya or epicentre of the body's spiritual energy). The Pathum Thani temple claims this technique is especially efficacious although the Buddha pointed out that no one method is inherently more special than any of the others.

The most controversial claim by the teachers at Wat Dhammakaya involves the nature of nirvana (nibbana). They say that the dhamma one gets from practising dhammakaya meditation appears to one in the form of a Buddha statue. This apparition is supposed to change as one progresses to higher levels of dhamma. When one dies, one's ''spiritual body'' takes on the appearance of this apparition and is said to be drawn to a land called Ayatana Nibbana, the eternal abode of the Lord Buddha and all the other arahant.

HOWEVER, in the Tripitaka, the Buddha defines nirvana as the absolute extinction of all cravings; nirvana does not involve a physical form, much less a physical ''land''. There was certainly no mention of a particular meditation technique with the power to convey one to another physical existence in some paradisaical land. According to the Lord Buddha, the liberated/enlightened state we call nirvana is not self; for his teaching was all about helping his followers to leave the personal self, the cause or seat of all earthly suffering. This principle is a distinctive characteristic of Buddhism.

During the course of an interview he gave to the now-defunct Baan Mai Roo Roey magazine some 10 years ago, Luang Phor Thattachivo, deputy abbot of Wat Dhammakaya, conceded that many activities organised by the temple -- and especially various miraculous claims (for instance, major benefactors would be given brief glimpses of heaven and hell) -- were not the core of Buddhism, but the bark.

''But we need to build colourful scaffolding to attract large crowds first. We can tell them later what the real building looks like, or what the Lord Buddha teaches, once they are already with us,'' said the deputy abbot.

Ten years on that scaffolding is more colourful than ever. And the temple is in the middle of a massive fund-raising campaign, the objective of which is to find Bt10 billion to erect the biggest Buddhist chedi in the world.

Luang Phor Thattachivo and his abbot, Luang Phor Dhammachayo, have been very successful in attracting the crowds too. The temple now houses 800-odd monks and scores of lay helpers and some 70,000 Dhammakaya followers were reported to have turned up for a recent ceremony there.

It is interesting to observe the direction that Buddhism is taking in modern-day. It will also be intriguing to see whether devotees are capable of distinguishing between the bark and the core of the tree of Buddhism.

The Nation

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